Thursday, January 27, 2005

"Feed Me Crapola, Seymour!"

While I was watching Seymour Hersh on the Daily Show the other day the thought occured to me, "Is there the slightest reason why I should believe any of his ideological, paranoid, slightly hysterical rants?" The answer comes today via Max Boot at the L.A. Times: No way. Digging Into Seymour Hersh

Hersh doesn't make any bones about his bias. "Bush scares the hell out of me," he said. He told a group in Washington, "I'm a better American than 99% of the guys in the White House," who are "nuts" and "ideologues." In another speech he called Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft "demented." Hersh has also compared what happened at Abu Ghraib with Nazi Germany. (Were American MPs gassing inmates?) He has claimed that since 2001 a "secret unit" of the U.S. government "has been disappearing people just like the Brazilians and Argentinians did." And in his lectures he has spread the legend of how a U.S. Army platoon was supposedly ordered to execute 30 Iraqis guarding a granary.

Hersh hasn't printed the execution story, which suggests it may not meet even his relaxed reportorial standards, but what he does run is a confusing farrago of fact and fiction. His latest New Yorker article, "The Coming Wars," is a perfect example.

Based almost entirely on anonymous sources ("a Pentagon advisor" is not to be confused with "a Pentagon consultant"), it starts off with the allegation that the United States is planning strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. I hope so. But planning isn't the same thing as doing. Hersh's article offers no reason to think a war really is "coming."

In the rest of the piece, he writes about how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expanding the Pentagon's covert anti-terrorism activities and intelligence-gathering. True enough. According to Bart Gellman of the Washington Post (a real investigative ace), Rumsfeld has created a new spy unit to make up for the CIA's deficiencies. Gellman's Jan. 23 story has all sorts of specifics that the New Yorker piece lacks, including the unit's name (the Strategic Support Branch). Hersh's contribution is to spin this into something nefarious by including anonymous speculation that military operatives might sponsor foreign "execution squads" or even carry out "terrorist activities." Umm, guess we'll have to take your word for it, Sy.

But how good is Hersh's word? His record doesn't inspire confidence. In 1986 he published a book suggesting that the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner because they mistook it for a U.S. spy plane — a claim debunked by the opening of Soviet archives. In 1997 he published a book full of nasty allegations about John F. Kennedy that was widely panned. As part of that project he tried to peddle a documentary based on forged documents.

Few facts in Hersh's stories are checkable by an outsider, but, of those that are, a number turn out to be false. In November 2001, he claimed that 16 AC-130 gunships participated in a raid (a "near disaster") on Mullah Mohammed Omar's compound in Afghanistan. There were only nine AC-130s in the entire region, and they are never used more than one or two at a time. In a story in October 2001, he claimed that Predator drones cost $40 million; the actual price tag is $2.5 million. In the latest article, he says two Pentagon policy officials would be in the "chain of command" for covert operations; the actual chain of command runs from the secretary of Defense to military commanders in the field.

It seems to me that someone who is doing investigative journalism, a form of journalism which oftens precludes readers from being able to corroborate much of the information presented, has a greater responsibility placed upon them to be even handed than, for instance, someone working on an editorial page or as a columnist. As it stands how can anyone objectively decide where Hersh's grasp of facts end and where his paranoid delusions start? I don't think you can objectively decide. If you find that Seymour Hersh's journalism speaks to you or not, it says more about the mindset you had to begin with. You certainly didn't learn anything new. In many ways you end up less informed then when you started.

That's the very definition of a lousy journalist.


David Leftwich said...

Thanks for passing on the great debunking. I heard Hersh yesterday on that bastion of lefty loons, Pacifica Radio. He was all doom and gloom -- the economy will tank in a year, the Europeans will be dancing on our graves (I think that's Sy's dream) because of the weak dollar, soldiers and their parents will soon be marching the streets to protest the war. I'm far from being a Little Green Football ditto head, but Hersh has in own very leftist agenda and can always seem to find an "anonymous" source to back him up.

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

Yeah, it is sort of amazing to me that anyone would want to take the approach Hersh has. You basically abdicate any hope you might have for credibility. At least it would in a rational world. What will happen in this world is that no attack will be forhcoming on Iran, and old Mr. Hersh will pat himself on the back for single handedly "stopping the war."

In the end, all of his writing can only be for a single purpose: to stroke his own ego.

What a legacy!

Rick Heller said...

Except that Hersh has broken some amazing stories, like My Lai, Abu Grahib, and the Robert Maxwell scandal in the 1980's.

I saw Hersh speak at the Nieman Narrative conference. Later, there was some discussion about what makes a great investigative journalist, and obsession was listed as the top quality. If you are not a little mentally unbalanced, you would never spend an inordinate amount of time digging into these things.

I think the burden of the investigative journalist is not to be evenhanded, but to be verified by others who follow. For me, I was dubious about Hersh when he broke the story that Robert Maxwell, the newspaper magnate who had bought the NY Daily News, was a fraud. Shortly thereafter, Maxwell committed suicide, and his empire collapsed in financial scandal and indictments. I call that vindication.

The Iconic Midwesterner said...

You could be right that there is a sort of unbalanced personality that is needed to do investigative journalism well. Sometimes that means you are working to uncover what is being deliberately hidden. Other times it means that you are just unbalanced.

And given that the pictures of prisoner abuse in Iraq were already floating around the internet AND that the Army was already investigating Abu Garhib, its hard to say Hersh "broke" anything. Popularized maybe.